How are we supposed to understand the one occasion when Jesus loses an argument?
Why does he seem insensitive or rude to a woman pleading for her daughter’s healing? Could it be that there is something more going on here?
The incident I’m referring to is reported in Mark 7:24-30 and Matthew 15:21-28. The accounts are different from each other yet consistent with each other, as one would expect from reliable, independent witnesses.
As an example, if a painter and a carpenter inspect a room and are later asked to describe what they saw, we are not surprised the painter focused on the color, quality, and application of the wall coverings, and the carpenter concentrated on the shape of the room, type of wood used, and the fittings.
Comparing Matthew’s and Mark’s records, we note that Matthew engages the disciples in this incident. We are not surprised by this focus, as disciples and disciple-making are significant to Matthew’s perspective. Therefore, I have chosen to explore Matthew’s account.
Immediately before this incident, Jesus had been confronted by Pharisees and teachers of the Jewish law (Matthew 15:1-20) about religious purity regulations. They wanted to know why Jesus’ disciples broke a tradition related to ritual cleanness.
Jesus responded by pointing out specific areas where the Pharisees and scribes subverted God’s laws, such as honoring one’s parents. He concluded his reply with: “You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you when he said:
This people honors me with their lips,
But their heart is far from me;
In vain do they worship me,
Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.
No rebuttal is heard from these Jewish leaders, but
the disciples came and said to [Jesus], “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?”
Jesus then teaches them about the essentials of purity: what comes out of the heart. Isaiah was on point: it’s about a heart for God and true worship.
That brings us to our present incident.
The previous scene involves Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem (15:1). They belong to the “right” people group, practice the “right” rituals, and live in the “right” city. Everything appeared to be “right” about these men according to the traditional Jewish standards. But their hearts were wrong— they were hypocrites.
By contrast, the present scene involves a foreign territory (modern-day coastal Lebanon), a Canaanite (a historical enemy of Israel), and a woman (perhaps a single mother with a questionable history). Everything was “wrong” about this woman according to traditional Jewish standards.
First, her plea (15:22):
(1) she was crying out loudly;
(2) she addressed Jesus with “O Lord, Son of David”;
(3) she asked for mercy— for her daughter, who was “severely oppressed by a demon.”
Do you find it surprising that Jesus “did not answer her a word” (15:23a)? Why does he appear to ignore her desperate request?
We read that “his disciples come and beg him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she is crying out after us’” (15:23b). The best understanding is that they want Jesus to tell her to get ‘lost authoritatively.’
By Jesus’ non-answer, his disciples reveal their own ingrained cultural and religious biases. Earlier, they were concerned the Pharisees had been offended— people they viewed as “clean.” Now they weren’t the least bit concerned about the desperate plight of this Canaanite woman— a person they viewed as “unclean.” Their biases needed to be uprooted and replaced with a deep sense of God’s mercy.
To the woman,
“[Jesus] answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24).
An identical expression occurs in 10:6, where “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” are contrasted with Gentiles— including this Canaanite woman. Yet what are we to do with the worship of the pagan magi in Matthew 2, and the inclusion in the genealogy of Jesus of a Canaanite woman (Tamar – 1:3), a Canaanite prostitute (Rahab – 1:5a), and a Moabitess (Ruth – 1:5b)?
In light of what follows, we know that Jesus’ mission is not limited to those carrying Israelite genes. So what does he mean by his statement? Is he intentionally following the trajectory of the disciples’ bias and insensitivity? If so, why?
Second, her appeal (15:25):
(1) she knelt before Jesus;
(2) she said, “Lord, help me.”
Her posture and words express both respect and desperation.
Jesus answers in a way that appears insensitive, even rude. He expresses his stated priority by referring to Israel as “children” and non-Jews as “dogs”:
“It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (15:26).
Third, her rebuttal (15:27):
“Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
In this rebuttal, she shows where her heart is: she honors Jesus; she loves her daughter.
This elicits an amazing response from Jesus:
“‘O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.’ And her daughter was instantly healed.”
Did Jesus lose the argument? Some think so.
I wonder if saying he appears to lose the argument would be more accurate. He won by losing.
If that is so, what is won?
No fewer than three ‘wins’ flow from the resulting reverence and faith of this Canaanite woman.
(1) For her, she presses through to the experience of God’s mercy.
(2) For the disciples, they observe the differences between the Jewish leaders whose hearts are far from the Lord and this Canaanite woman whose heart is toward the Lord. They have learned (or are beginning to learn) to look beyond religion, ethnicity, social status, and gender to discern a person’s heart.
This is a crucial lesson to equip them to participate with Jesus in his mission to reach the world.
(3) For you and me, the reader(s), we watch and learn as we wrestle with understanding this encounter. It seems to draw us out, causing us
One question I ask is,
“Am I biased toward my own people, and against others, on the basis of ethnicity, economics, education, or status?”
Do I favor people who are, say, middle class, Canadian-born, white, and educated (or whatever), and ignore people who are immigrants, poor, unemployed, diseased (or whatever)?
Was Jesus insensitive, even rude, to the Canaanite woman? At first blush, it appears that he was. Yet his final statement and action tell us something else was happening.
Jesus frequently said and did the unexpected. Here are a few examples:
- telling a paralyzed man (without discussion), “your sins are forgiven” (Luke 5:20);
- to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23);
- to his disciples, “the last will be first, and the first last” (19:30; 20:16);
- touching a leper (8:2-3);
- turning water into wine (John 2:1-12); and
- washing his disciples’ dirty feet (John 13:4-5).
No matter how unexpected his words or actions were, Jesus always had a reason utterly consistent with his mission.
Concerning this Canaanite woman, he commended her faith and healed her daughter. His actions, statements, and manner contributed to her demonstration of faith and her experience of mercy.
I will not presume to call Jesus insensitive or rude— after all, “love is not arrogant or rude” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5). However, I will acknowledge that I don’t fully understand.
What have you heard and seen from this ‘argument’ that speaks into your life?
Photo credit: cropped portion of Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician woman (artist unknown).
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